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Data Centers Not Largest Locus of ICT Energy or Emissions

Most Green ICT attention focuses on the datacenter. Five years of work consistently holds that datacenters represent a minority of total ICT energy consumption and carbon emissions.


The paper Sustainability in Networks cites at 2012 estimate. "…datacentres are responsible for only roughly 20% of the total impact of ICT, whereas the rest of the impact is mainly caused by end users devices (60%) and networks (20%)." The author goes on to note, "It is also likely that this division will change in the near future, since more devices are expected to be connected all the time (Internet of Things) and given a shift to cloud services. These two trends combined will result in a massive increase in the use of wireless and mobile access networks and especially the mobile access networks are currently critically energy inefficient."


Mobile VCE published Vodafone's breakdown of cellular network power consumption. Base stations count for almost 60%, data center less than 10%, in a "typical" UK 40MW network.

ETA Devices reported in February 2013, "The world’s mobile networks consume approximately 120TWh of electricity per year, and 50-80 percent of these networks’ power is consumed by their power amplifiers and associated components…$36.5 billion [is] spent to power mobile base stations each year." That 120TWh is about what all the world's servers consumed in 2005.


The Australian Computer Society commissioned and published Carbon and Computers in Australia. The 2009 report attributes only ~34% to data centers and ~9% to network infrastructures*, with the majority being attributed to edge gear. Interestingly, households outweigh enterprises 60% to 40% in edge gear energy consumption and carbon emissions. I was struck that the edge gear category "Printers and Imaging Equipment" represented an amount of consumption and emission similar to that of PCs. Both of these edge gear categories were a little bigger than the servers, themselves.

The IEEE's GreenCom'09 conference published an even more dramatic ratio: "Of the 10% (electricity consumption) globally spent for ICT, already today 70% are spent in homes / offices and only 30% in the network / server farms."

A presenter at a US National Science Foundation workshop reports, " Most ICT energy use and waste is in user end systems – PCs, NAT routers, game consoles, set-top boxes (STB), etc. – Not data centers. EPA estimates 2% of total US electricity is from PCs, and a Congressional Report estimates 1.5% is from data centers. – Not Internet core. Most PC energy use in the US occurs when no one is there, and this is greater than the total energy use of all network equipment."

The NSF presenter put the issue well: "Goal must be energy-proportional computing at all levels - Not just in the data center." The challenge for Green ICT practice is that data centers represent a concentrated point of leverage amenable to technological solutions while edge gear also requires dealing with distributed locations, with diverse populations, with behavior and with cultural issues like status entitlements.

The footprint of "C" in ICT
Inventory of over 19 billion pieces of edge gear.

*This does not include edge networking equipment in households and enterprises, which alone accounts for 7% of the total, and is bundled under edge gear in this post's summary of the report data.